Editor's Note: To commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Mormon Trail, The Salt Lake Tribune is offering this day-by-day account of the Mormon pioneers' original trek from Winter Quarters, Nebraska, to the Great Salt Lake Valley. Tribune history writer Harold Schindler, using diaries, letters, journals and reminiscences that have come to light this century, has fleshed out the following narrative.
Tuesday, April 20, 1847
Sand and dust lay thick on the wagon covers, blown there by strong winds that prevailed through the night. Still, the pioneers shook themselves awake at the sound of the camp bugle at 5:00 a.m. and began the routine of rolling out the wagon train. Those like Howard Egan, who hunted wildfowl on the banks of the Platte River the day before, treated themselves to a first-rate breakfast. It was always nice to start the day on a full stomach. Wilford Woodruff noticed that the most prevalent bird in the neighborhood was the sand hill crane. "It flies in large flocks on every side of us."
The pioneers' westward journey took them past another Indian mound and then another hour took them to Shell Creek, six to eight feet wide with a "very poor bridge," according to camp historian Thomas Bullock. Even so, all the wagons crossed safely, through a grove of timber and onto the prairie once more. A mile or so to the right was a prairie-dog village spread over six acres of ground. Woodruff observed "gopher mounds from one to six feet in diameter and from three inches to two feet in height." It is rough going for wagons, but "other than these mounds, this is the best road on the north side of the Platte, I ever traveled, it being dry, level and hard," he added.
The caravan stopped for noon near a small lagoon about five miles from Shell Creek. The site is approximately the location of today's Schuyler, Nebraska. Three deer broke from cover and sprinted past a startled knot of pioneers. Porter Rockwell and Tom Brown chased them on horseback, but were unable to close to within gunshot of the thoroughly spooked animals.
John Higbee, Luke Johnson, Stephen Markham and some others started out a half-hour ahead of everyone this morning with the Revenue Cutter and seine. They planned to fish one of the small lagoons and, with some confidence, took three wagons along for their catch. Egan and his group circled their wagons near a small branch of the river and corralled oxen and dairy cattle inside to feed, while the horses were picketed in a small stand of cottonwoods. The thermometer read ninety-four degrees at 1:00 p.m.
Those who went fishing (Higbee, Johnson and Markham) cast their seine on a small lake two miles up the trail. When they hauled in the net, they found a good sampling of smallmouth buffalofish and common carp. When they returned to camp, they had a catch of more than 200 fish, which were distributed among the pioneers.
At night, several cottonwoods were cut down as horse fodder. Most horses were taken out to an island in the Platte and turned loose for the night to browse on cottonwood trees, which grew in profusion there. "They will gnaw the bark from browse limbs and branches ten inches thick as readily as they eat corn. We have had to feed them upon cottonwood all the way thus far, but we give each horse about three quarts of corn a day," Woodruff noted in his journal.
He and his wagon party feasted on a "good supper" made from a ten-pound buffalofish and a two-pound carp. After grazing, the cattle and oxen were corralled within the wagon circle. Distance traveled during the day was marked by the camp historian as eighteen miles. Because the Pawnees were but eight miles from the pioneer camp, it was necessary to post a patrolling guard for the night.